In a verdict that could ruin Ukraine's hopes of integration with Europe and instead drag it back into Russia's orbit, a Kiev court today handed down a harsh seven-year prison sentence against the country's main opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, for "criminal abuse" during her former tenure as prime minister.
Ms. Tymoshenko, a fiery Ukrainian nationalist who was narrowly defeated in presidential elections last year by pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, has been on trial since June on charges that she exceeded her powers and betrayed the interests of her country by signing a disadvantageous gas deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin two years ago.
Judge Rodion Kireyev told a hushed Kiev courtroom Tuesday that former Prime Minister Tymoshenko "used her official powers to criminal ends and, acting consciously, committed actions which clearly exceeded her rights and powers which had heavy consequences."
Mr. Kireyev said Tymoshenko's bad bargain caused a loss of $190 million to the state gas firm Naftohaz, and that she had allowed an unfair price for Russian gas to be locked in for a period of ten years, the duration of the contract.
Analysts say the draconian seven-year prison sentence meted out to Tymoshenko will galvanize internal opponents of Mr. Yanukovych's increasingly authoritarian regime, wreck Ukraine's chances of signing a nearly-negotiated free trade agreement with European Union, and leave it little choice but to drift into a Moscow-led customs union, which will permanently link its economy with those of Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan.
About 2,000 Tymoshenko supporters demonstrated outside the court while the verdict was being read, and thousands of special riot police of the elite Berkut special operations unit were reportedly being bussed into central Kiev in anticipation of wider protests.
"This trial has greatly worsened the situation in internal Ukrainian politics, because the authorities simply did not understand what the consequences would be," says Pavel Movchan, a deputy of the Supreme Rada (parliament) with Tymoshenko's BYuT party. "There will be waves of protest."
Mr. Movchan says he sees Moscow's hand behind the verdict against the country's main opposition leader.
"Russia is interested in increasing Ukraine's isolation, keeping it within Russia's sphere of influence and eventually incorporating it into Russia," he says. "This decision has done great harm to Ukraine's international standing, and weakens it greatly. Only Moscow benefits."
Reaction to the judgement from Europe was swift. European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told journalists in Brussels that the EU is "deeply disappointed" with the outcome of a trial it had long suspected to be politically motivated, and added that the verdict "risks having profound implications for the EU-Ukraine bilateral relationship, including for the conclusion of the association agreement, our political dialogue, and our cooperation more broadly."
Russian responses are bound to be more measured. Moscow has rejected any suggestion that the gas deal signed between Tymoshenko and Mr. Putin was in any way improper, and has insisted that its terms – including European level gas prices – must be obeyed until it expires in 2019.
"This trial is an internal Ukrainian matter, and it has no bearing on Russian-Ukrainian relations," says Kirill Frolov, head of the Ukrainian department of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
"The main issue for Russia is whether Ukraine will join the [Moscow-led] customs union, or whether it joins a free trade zone with the EU. Russia won't accept any aspersions cast upon our current gas agreement. It was signed, and it is working," he adds.
But Vira Nanivska, director of the independent International Institute for Policy Studies in Kiev, says that "if it stands, this verdict will destroy our relationship with Europe.... Sometimes there is a tipping point, where everything falls one way or another. For Ukraine, today may be that day."
Ms. Nanivska says that Ukraine's best hopes always lay with balancing East against West, and finding a unique Ukrainian path between them, but the tough verdict against Tymoshenko threatens to upset all those efforts.
"Now it looks like Ukraine has only one path," she says. "Europe is going to pieces, and the [Russian] empire is strengthening. It's not a good day for Ukraine."